The Inside Lane: Taking Flight

Oiselle showing their support for 800m runner Kate Grace at the recent U.S. Track & Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: www.oiselle.com

Sometimes, I wish I could be a chick.

OK, so that’s not actually true, but now that I’ve got your attention, just hear me out for a minute. While I have no actual inclination to be a woman (yes ladies, manhood does come with a few awesome perks of its own), every so often I desire to be afforded some of the same opportunities as my female running counterparts. I’ll save spearheading a my own Title IX movement for another day, but there is some cool shit going on for female runners right now and I wish my Y chromosome wasn’t preventing me from being a part of it.

So who’s leading this estrogen-charged, well, charge? And who or what are they taking aim at? The army is a women’s apparel company called Oiselle, it’s led by the fearless and outspoken Sally Bergesen and they’re coming at the female running world from a bunch of different directions.

Since first bringing their product to market in 2007, Oiselle has grown from a small apparel company aimed at making clothes that actually fit female runners to a fast-growing brand that wants “to raise the ante in showing how women can support other women,” while also speaking out against the ridiculous sponsorship restrictions that plague professional track athletes. At the same time, they’re also disrupting the traditional sponsorship model by signing talented female elites so their primary means of chasing a professional dream won’t be tied to an exclusive shoe contract.

“Ultimately, we want to be a part of positive change moving forward. What’s at stake is both the vitality of the sport we love, as well as pro athletes’ ability to make a decent living. If we can create even the beginnings of a new model for that, it will be a huge win,” Bergesen said in a press release earlier this year.

That “new model” Oiselle prides itself on extends beyond eye-catching apparel and support for its elite athletes, however, and has gone on to include fun elements such as runway-style fashion shows, Olympic Trials dance parties DJ’d by M.C. Hammer and a slew of other outside-the-box initiatives that encourage women of all abilities, shapes and sizes to become a fans of the sport, support competition and promote community — all of which is spelled out in the company’s team manifesto. Most recently — as in a few hours ago — Bergesen, who founded the company and today serves as its CEO, announced Oiselle’s next endeavor: the formation of Project Little Wing, a post-collegiate training group based in Bend, Oregon designed for women “to give running a shot post college.” Lauren Fleshman, a long-time Nike athlete who last winter announced she was leaving the mighty Swoosh to join the scrappy Oiselle squad as a sponsored athlete and business partner, is the most recognizable and accomplished member of the team, which looks to grow and make an impact on the competitive scene in coming years.

“We are giving them some assistance, mostly training expenses, meet travel, coaching, PT (physical therapy) and providing a professional training infrastructure,” Bergesen wrote to me today.

This is all super cool stuff! Oiselle is more than just an apparel brand trying to get more women to wear their clothes, even though they’re doing a pretty good job of that, too. It’s a passionate, forward-thinking movement that isn’t afraid to take risks and speak out against/generally disrupt the order of the archaic establishment that is the running industry. They’ve encouraged women to feel empowered, energized and enthusiastic about themselves and their chosen sport. As runners, regardless of our gender, ability or experience level (and brand or team affiliations), we would all be better off if we could adopt this line of thinking.

Some notable personalities in the running world not tied to Oiselle have taken notice of the brand and praised its unique initiatives. Kevin Hanson, co-founder and coach of the Brooks-backed Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, tweeted yesterday, “@oiselle is a company we can all learn from. A genuine passion for our sport. Thank you.” Molly Pritz, an ASICS-sponsored athlete based in Boulder, Colo., tweeted today in response to Fleshman’s announcement of the new training group, “Beyond cool, ladies. Great women, great training, great environment…it’s what our sport needs.” Drew Wartenburg, director of cross country and track & field at UC Davis and coach of New Balance-sponsored Olympian Kim Conley, simply responded with “Well done” to Oiselle’s announcement on Twitter earlier today.

On the flipside, Oiselle will often recognize the achievements of athletes they don’t sponsor and offer them acknowledgement through their blog or on social media. This is unheard of in running, or any other competitive industry for that matter, but goes to show their willingness to cross “enemy” lines in order to support, promote and grow the sport.

Although we all can’t be chicks, or wear cute, flashy clothes every time we head out the door for a run, we can follow Oiselle’s example by telling our own stories, encouraging and celebrating the essential elements of a healthy lifestyle, clean competition and an inclusive community, and by supporting our sport on all levels.

“Sometimes us chicks wish we were dudes,” Bergesen admitted to me today. “No matter, we can all flock together.”

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